Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Preeta Samarasan writes about a Malaysian Indian family who struggles to make sense of the emotional turmoil that plague and torment them in The Big House.

Unflinchingly, Preeta brings to life what perhaps many families are but hate to admit to being; dysfunctional.

Every member of this family appears dysfunctional. Aasha, the little girl who sees ghosts and who is aunguished by the inevitable departure of Uma her big sister. Appa, a successful lawyer who is disillusioned with the politics in the country as he struggles with his personal guilt and painful secrets. Amma suffers as an abused child and then as a bitter and misunderstood wife and mother, Paati, a mother-in-law who "reserved her bile for the immutable truths"... and who had declined physically into "a shriveled extra limb hanging off the family's robust torso, waiting to fall off". Chellam the servant girl, a shadow that zooms in and out and who struggles to deal with abuse and fray hopes for her future. Uma, the teenage daughter, who has, for some mysterious reason, taken to cutting off her emotional attachments towards those she once cared for.Uncle ballroom, brother and uncle who waltzes in and out according to his financial circumstances and young Suresh who seems to me the least dysfunctional in relation to the rest of them.

Preeta is a Malaysian but who now resides in France with her husband. This is her debut novel and she has been hailed as a talent to look out for. Her writing has been said to be reminiscent of Rushdie and Roy. I can certainly see the quirky similarities. The very familiar rolling of twoormorewordsintoalongsingleone, the string-of-hyphenated-words, the tragic comic scenes and the sharp wit and humour.

She writes vividly, with agility and grace. She has the ability to touch on the less obvious intentions of her characters and in one particular scene she hit a home run that left me with a gasp. She revealed the something that Appa was searching for in a wife :

"in Amma's luminous eyes....".."and in them he recognized what he had longed for all this time, what had been lacking in the attentions of Lily,Claudine and Nalini: gratitude."

I also found it refreshingly original that Appa lacked a sense of smell as it was this handicap that played a significant part in the development of the story at a certain point. In a comic, sad way it was somehow believable.

Since most of the characters have been given such depth and significance it does leave you wondering who the protagonist is. Unable to put my finger explicitly on one or even two of them I had to concede that this is a story of at least five characters all equally substantial and indispensable to the complexity of the emotional relationships and discord that runs through this family .

Tragic-comic scenes speckle the span of this saga and like many successful writers Preeta was able to get into her characters and play each one out in her writing touching the core of their hopes, pain, disgust or turmoil with utmost lucidity and in almost telescopic detail.

Not heavy on plot this book moves slowly and leaves you wondering what make these people tick rather than what would happen next. It was almost a character study. Deep and intense.

The only time in my reading that left me eager to know what would happen next was towards the end of the book. For the rest of the time I spent most of it enjoying Preeta's poetic prose, her imagery, the amusing Malaysian Indian accents in the dialogues like.."Shaddup your mouth and go away" or "acting-shackting", her sharp wit, the comic-tragic scenes but most of all I was constantly amazed at her ability to expose the complexities of human emotions and of deeper indescribable and unexpected thoughts with brilliant clarity.

The story is set against a political upheaval in Malaysia and at one point a whole chapter was a scene set against the backdrop of the 1969 race riots. Swipes have been taken at "ketuanan Melayu" (Malay master race) and of the disenchantment of Malaysian Indians in Malaysia.

But whatever message that Preeta has managed to get across politically, for me, this book comes across as a story of helplessness and dependency. The helplessness and dependency of children upon the adults responsible for them, the helplessness of those caught between the frying pan and the fire, and the helplessness of the abused.

Perhaps the dependency and helplessness was intended as a symbolic parallel to the feeling of perceived dependency and helplessness of the Indian minority upon a country that they came to in search of shelter, hope and a future. Perhaps. But for me the book touched my sensitivities as a mother, wife and daughter more than in any other way.

The only regret I had was that I longed to have been able to feel a connection for at least one of the characters so that I cared what would happen to him or her. Perhaps they were, each, all of them, too dysfunctional to be appealing. In other words, inspite of the agony and misery that these characters suffered they didn't move me enough or make a dent somewhere inside of me so that I pained for them like I would pain for some people I care for in real life or for some characters in some books. The only character that came close to providing me with that feeling was Aasha, the little girl who sees ghosts.

The story begins at the end and ends at the beginning, cleverly and slowly peeling away the layers and finally revealing part of the source of the dysfunctional misery. The ending, in turn, leaves you wondering what would happen next.

I found this book vibrantly written, elegant in prose, lucid yet complex with stunning descriptions that are often tinged with wit and humour. She plays with language effortlessly. A joy to read.

PS : Since this is a food blog and the fact that even dysfunctional families have to eat I will be providing recipes in the next few posts of the foods that have been mentioned in the book. :)


Nadia said...

LOL @ the P.s.

but i really enjoyed readingyour review...wow!

so this is new..off the shelves? somany indian writers blooming kan..wow..
i just read monsoon diary by shoba narayan...very good also..she won the MFK fisher award for distinguished writer given by James Beard foundation...i really enjoyed her writing style...

now I'm reading MFK fisher The Gastronomical Me.

Zurin said...

Yes Asian Indian wirters are very talented...
In that case I must get thet monsoon diary..awarded books are always worth reading


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